Practices began statewide Monday for Class 3A high school football. For the Powell Panthers, looking to rebound from a 1-7 season in 2017, all eyes turn to new head coach Aaron Papich.
Papich was named head coach in May following the resignation of Chanler Buck, who guided the Panthers for six seasons before stepping down to become assistant principal/athletic director at Powell Middle School. A two-time All-Big Sky selection at defensive end for Montana State University, Papich is committed to instilling the same determination that drove him as a player to the kids he now coaches.
“Attitude and effort, I want that to be the culture in Powell,” Papich said. “It’s all about showing up every day ready to go. When you step foot on that field, you’re giving everything you got.”
Taking advantage of the cooler weather this week, Papich said the first few days of practice have been productive. As the team transitions into full-pad workouts, he’s excited to see the pieces start to fall into place. Currently at 65 players, Papich said he’d like to see a few more by the time school starts.
“We like our numbers right now; it’s been pretty positive all around,” Papich said. “Once school starts, I think there might be a few other kids that come out. If we could break that 70-player mark, that would be pretty exciting.”
Papich said players have come in with a high level of enthusiasm, and with the loss of 13 seniors from last year’s squad, the upperclassmen are already beginning to settle into their leadership roles. Papich said he can count on the experienced players to be examples on the field and in the community.
“I love how excited these guys are, and any time you see that, you feel good about it as a coach,” Papich said. “Some of the returning varsity kids that are doing a great job are Brody Karhu, Seth Horton, Kaelan Groves, Ethan Asher [and] Carson Heinen. Those are some big-time leaders that are really stepping forward.”
The team begins practicing in full pads Thursday (today), and Papich said the first few days were spent getting 65 kids on the same page.
“With a new coach and a new system, we want to feel pretty good about our foundation before we open up against Riverton,” he said. “I told the guys that I wanted their effort and their attitude to be the number one thing. ... I let them know that it doesn’t matter what you know or how much you know, you just gotta bring some effort and some attitude to everything you do. After that, things will take care of themselves.”
After a six-season run that saw Powell win three Class 3A state championships and come up just short of a fourth, the Panthers stumbled last year, posting a 1-7 record and missing the playoffs. As the team enters the 2018 campaign, Papich said he’s getting back to the basics.
“We’re really just trying to simplify everything,” he said. “Coach Buck had a good system. My biggest thing coming in as the new guy is I’m a line guy, offensive and defensive line, and we need to start there. Not only with the line of our own team, but the line with the freshman crew and down to the middle school. A lot of the verbiage in our system is actually designed for the younger levels. ... We have the future in mind when we’re designing things with our feeder programs.”
Papich said it’s been a whirlwind since he was offered the job in May, and now that practices have officially begun, he’s enjoying the process.
“It’s so much fun — it’s the greatest challenge I’ve ever had, in a good way,” he said. “When practice doesn’t go quite the way you wanted, you kinda want to practice again right away. And then when you start feeling good about it, it’s not like you can rest on that either. I just have to trust in the process.”
Papich also heaped praise on his assistant coaches, beginning with defensive coordinator Mike Heny.
“[Heny] just brings a great perspective to the game. He’s our most veteran coach,” Papich said. “It’s nice to get his feedback on how things are going, and where we need to go.”
Chase Kistler returns as quarterback coach, and Papich said Kistler’s experience playing at the collegiate level gives him an edge as a coach, especially with a quarterback’s footwork.
“The experience and the terminology he brings to the table is definitely his strong suit,” Papich said.
Offensive coordinator Waleryan Wisniewski has done an excellent job developing the team’s offense, based on being ambiguous at times, according to Papich.
“[Wisniewski] has really fit the pieces together to make the offense make sense,” he said. “I might be the architect at times, but he’s really the engineer. He’s taken his knowledge and really made what him and I have been working together on a reality, along with all the coaches.”
Zach Coombs is the freshman coach, as well the offensive/defensive line coach.
“[Coombs] is a tremendous teacher,” Papich said. “He really keys in on the specific cues of each drill that we do, and he really works well with our younger guys.”
Like Papich, Joel Hayano is new to the program this season, and brings collegiate coaching experience to the Panthers.
“Coach Hayano is a technology guy, and a really smart analytical guy,” Papich said. “He also brings a lot of perspective to the team, and is just an easy guy to work with, and he brings a lot to our group dynamic.”
Tha Panthers open the 2018 season at home Aug. 24 against Riverton.